Study Tips for Teens with ADHD
Diagnoses of attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) have skyrocketed over the past decade. The 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) reports that 2.9 million adolescents ages 12-17 (11.9 percent of this age group) have a current diagnosis of ADHD. Millions more go undiagnosed and untreated.
While ADHD’s challenges vary significantly, distractibility and disorganization are common experiences. They make tests and homework especially difficult and time-consuming. Assignments are often late or missing, which lowers grades and self-esteem. Ultimately, such challenges can have a serious negative impact on students’ ability to get into top colleges.
Happily, several techniques help high school students sharpen their focus, lower stress and produce high-quality homework. They result in better grades and stronger skills that serve students well during college and beyond. These practices lead to greater success with extracurricular activities, too.
To learn more about these techniques and suggestions and how they may help you during your high school years, read on.
1. Set up a distraction-free work space
Keep distractions to a minimum. Turn off the TV, mute and hide your phone and quit your emailer. Music may lower anxiety and drown out noises, but listening to compelling songs can make it hard to concentrate. If you’re convinced that music may aid your concentration, try pieces without lyrics. Using noise-canceling headphones, even without music, can help those sensitive to sound.
Additionally, if you need to move around a lot, consider standing or pacing while you work. Try using a fidget cube. Repetitive actions often soothe fidgety folk.
2. Keep a calendar of all assignments and due dates
This is the most important thing you can do to stay on track: keep all assignments and due dates written down in one place. Before every homework session, check your calendar to assess and prioritize what tasks must be done tonight:
- Assignments due the next day are your first priority.
- What else is due this week, and when?
- Do future assignments need to be started early or done in phases?
- Will any assignments need to be coordinated with other students?
- Will you need special materials (books, supplies, etc.) to complete upcoming assignments?
- Note upcoming activities that could keep you from accomplishing tasks on time; consider which projects you need to begin early.
You’re likely to have regular after-school activities like music lessons, tutoring, driver’s ed, athletic events, play rehearsals or jobs. Estimate how much time you’ll have left for homework after such activities. Next, consider what homework must be completed over the following days. You might need to start on larger assignments several days before they’re due.
3. Estimate how long each task will take
Distractible people tend to have difficulty estimating times needed to accomplish tasks. For accurate estimates:
- List all tasks to be accomplished.
- Break tasks up into segments.
- How often do you need breaks? Plan on a five-minute break at each stopping point.
- Estimate the time necessary to do each task.
- Add estimates up, including all breaks.
Finally, track how long each task actually takes. This will make your future estimates more accurate and show where you tend to underestimate or forget steps.
4. Take regular, timed breaks
Breaks release pent-up energy but derail attention. Before each break, set a timer for five minutes. Get up and away from work during each break. When the alarm goes off, no snoozes or excuses—get back to work.
Movement is vital to relieving stress and energy. During breaks, play with your pet, dance to a video, practice karate—do something physical to let off steam.
Parents, when kids take overly long breaks or forget to set alarms, remind them without scolding. A calm “Did your alarm go off?” or “When does your break end?” helps your child return to work quickly, and without embarrassment, which is itself a distraction.
5. Submit online assignments early
Websites crash, connectivity slows, power failures occur—be prepared. To avoid missing deadlines, set early deadlines for online submissions to allow for breaks and distractions. Before each deadline:
- Estimate how long it will take.
- Do you have other online deadlines that night?
- Consider obligations that might keep you from completing the work on time.
Then, add up time estimates, plus time for breaks, plus a 20% margin to account for distractions or connectivity issues. This is the minimum amount of time you should budget before the deadline.
6. Try doing homework with a parent in the room
I hear your concerns: Won’t having parents around distract students? Don’t parents interfere or nag? Isn’t sitting quietly with studying teens boring? Actually for many teens with ADHD, having parents in the room improves focus. They stick to tasks longer since if they text, watch videos or play games, parents will notice. This works best when parents don’t interact with children excessively, nag, chat or make too much noise while teens work.
Teens with ADHD often feel like everyone else is playing while they work, which causes resentment. When parents do chores like cooking, paying bills or washing dishes nearby, or sit and read or work quietly while teens do homework, they set an example of productivity and responsibility. They show that they’re willing to forgo more exciting diversions to help their kids to focus.
Doing homework after a full day of school is frustrating, and sitting near students to encourage better work habits means extra work for parents. But parents who show respect and support for teens’ efforts tend to have a strongly positive influence, and their children have higher grades and test scores.
That said, many parents of teens with ADHD have the condition, too. If parents with ADHD find it hard to sit quietly near teens, they may cause anxiety and distraction. Such parents should leave the room, but consider dropping in with brief encouragements every 20 or 30 minutes.
If parents discover children in mid-distraction, neutral questions like “How’s it going?” can help. Teaching humans to behave positively works as training pets does: avoid giving unnecessary punishment and reward positive behaviors with encouragement.
7. Positive parental involvement builds self-confidence
Students learn best when they feel responsible for their successes. They feel pride in overcoming challenges themselves rather than relying on external rewards for motivation. They also benefit from consistent parental support.
Parents who know their teens’ challenges, track grades and offer sympathy for frustrations tend to have children with better study skills. Showing interest in children’s assignments demonstrates that school work is important, but this doesn’t mean doing your child’s homework. It means discussing what teens are working on and asking about your child’s thoughts on their work. We often learn best when we explain things to others. Encourage your child to demonstrate their knowledge and develop solutions independently.
8. One-on-one mentoring and tutoring builds lifelong skills
One of the best ways for easily distracted people to improve study skills is to receive individualized attention from a near-peer mentor. Mentors help teens sharpen their skills, improve focus and build self-confidence. They help students prioritize and organize their work, clarify goals, choose valuable and engaging extracurriculars and prepare for the challenges of college.
How Parents Can Help Teens Get Unstuck
Because people with ADHD are often criticized for their distractibility, they often experience guilt, shame or anxiety that can lead to emotional flooding. They become overwhelmed, making focusing on homework impossible.
Parents who show empathy help lower this anxiety and build trust. During flooding episodes, no amount of argument or reasoning makes things better. A flooded brain can’t think straight. To reset it, parents might try suggesting helpful distractions like:
- Focused breathing, such as is done with yoga or meditation
- Getting up to stretch, pace or play with pets
- Playing an instrument or taking a dog for a walk
- Listening to music or watching pleasing videos
An overwhelmed teen also needs a longer break; watching a comedy, reading for fun or exercising for a half-hour goes a long way toward calming anxiety attacks or quieting outbursts. So, encourage anxious teens to take a break and have another go. And don’t forget to congratulate them when they come up with their own solutions.
To aid in dealing with related frustrations, CollegeVine publishes Zen, a blog of articles supporting students’ mental health throughout the college admissions process.
Play a Little Every Day
Being a student is a challenging, full-time job. We all need breaks and encouragement to function at our best. Here are a few important things to remember:
- Teens need breaks before as well as after homework. They need unstructured time every day to even out stress hormones.
- Working right up until bedtime leads to bad sleep patterns. Relax before bedtime to make insomnia, a frequent side-effect of ADHD, less likely.
With adequate preparation, consistent habits and family support, teens with ADD/ADHD can be high-functioning, happy students who go on to be high achievers. Try these tips and techniques and see how much more satisfying and successful studying can be.
CollegeVine’s blog is full of effective tips for improving study habits, handling stress and improving focus and retention. These posts are especially useful for students with ADHD:
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